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Ghostly Boats Carry North Korean Crews, Dead and Alive, to Japan

“I am wondering why so many of these have all of a sudden come in such a short time,” said Kazuko Komatsu, 66, who lives in a house close to the marina in Yurihonjo. North Korea, she said, “is a mysterious country. We don’t know so much. I don’t know if they are coming here to escape or whether they just accidentally drifted here.”

For years, North Korean fishing boats, mostly ghost ships that ran aground either empty or carrying the dead bodies of their crew, have arrived in Japan, often in the fall and winter months when rough weather roils the sea and conditions grow dangerous for crews using outdated boats and equipment.


Yurihonjo, a port city in northwestern Japan. A boat carrying eight living North Koreans washed ashore here. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

The recent rise in numbers of fishing boats landing on Japan’s western coast has spooked local residents, whose views of North Korea are shaped by media accounts of the hermit kingdom and stories of Japanese citizens abducted by the North.

Suspicions are particularly high when live fishermen have come ashore. This year, 18 North Korean crew members have landed on beaches in Japan, the highest number in the last five years.

The crews have told the authorities that they hit bad weather and suffered mechanical problems on their boats before drifting with the currents toward Japan. But some Japanese doubt those stories, suspecting darker purposes.

Those doubts were fanned last month when Japan’s Coast Guard discovered a North Korean boat anchored near an island off Hokkaido. When questioned, the fishermen confessed that some of the boat’s 10 crew members had gone ashore and taken refrigerators, televisions, washing machines and a motorcycle from fishing shacks. The police in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, say they have not determined whether they will be arrested.


Posters at Akita police headquarters demanding the return of abducted Japanese from North Korea. Many Japanese suspect the washed-up North Korean fishermen are actually spies. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

In Yurihonjo, where the eight living North Koreans washed up in a fishing boat on Nov. 23, a lack of information has fueled speculation. “Are they spies?” read a headline in the Akita Sakigake Shimpo, a local newspaper.

Outside a grocery store in Yurihonjo this week, Mariko Abe, 66, said she was suspicious. “Maybe they were trying to kidnap some people,” she said. Her friend, Tomoe Goto, 41, said she wondered if the fishermen were trying to defect. She also worried that there were other crew members hiding in town.

Unlike in South Korea, where the authorities disclosed details about a North Korean soldier’s dramatic escape through the heavily guarded border with South Korea last month, the police in Akita have been frugal with specifics about the North Koreans arriving here.

Yoshinobu Ito, deputy chief of the Yurihonjo Police Department, declined to say if the eight fishermen who landed ashore had applied for asylum, or what other information the police had learned from the men during the nine days they stayed at the police station.

Mimiyazawa Beach

Sea of Japan

Yellow Sea

Mimiyazawa Beach

Sea of Japan

“There are parts of the press reports that were accurate and parts that were not,” Mr. Ito said.

The Akita prefectural police said immigration authorities had issued emergency landing permits to the fishermen and determined they were not spies. But Shogi Hashimoto, a superintendent at Akita police headquarters, said, “We cannot tell you the criteria of how we assumed they are not spy agents.”

Fears about North Korean spies entering Japan surface regularly. Such agents are known to have abducted Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in Akita, the police said they had arrested North Korean spies in the 1960s and at least once in the 1980s. When the fishermen first came ashore in Yurihonjo last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the crew members could be spies.

Satoru Miyamoto, a professor of political science at Seigakuin University, said he doubted the North Koreans currently landing in Japan were engaged in espionage.

Spies, he said, “would come on a better ship.” He said the current crews were probably fishermen or farmers trying to supplement their incomes. Some were relatively inexperienced, he said, and ran into trouble when they encountered wild ocean currents in aging wooden boats.


Ryosen Kojima, a Buddhist monk, at the temple where he keeps white boxes containing the ashes of the eight North Koreans who were found dead at Miyazawa Beach. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

According to propaganda videos released by North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, has heavily promoted commercial fishing. In one video shown on Japanese broadcaster Nihon TV, the regime said it wanted to double the country’s catch this year.

Under United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, the country cannot sell seafood abroad. Jiro Ishimaru, a journalist with Asia Press who covers North Korea, said many fishermen are trying to sell their catches domestically, and take big risks to fish for squid in a particularly treacherous area of the Sea of Japan known as the Yamato Rise.

Along the eastern coast of North Korea, “there are fishing villages known as ‘widows’ villages,’” he said. “Many people don’t return.”

Indeed, the eight men whose boat washed ashore in Oga will never make it home. According to Hiromi Wakai, a spokeswoman in Akita for the Coast Guard, their bodies were badly decomposed by the time their boat reached the shore. In autopsies, a medical examiner concluded that two of them died by drowning, but could not determine a cause of death for the other six.


The rough Sea of Japan, as seen from Yurihonjo. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Over the weekend, the city of Oga cremated the bodies. The Coast Guard is keeping fingernails and toenails for DNA identification in case family members come forward. In past cases, the Japanese Red Cross has helped to return remains to North Korea.

For now, the ashes of the eight are stored in unmarked white boxes that sit on a table at the back of the main hall in Tousenji, a Zen temple in Oga.

Ryosen Kojima, 62, Tousenji’s priest, said the temple would keep the ashes indefinitely. If they are not claimed, they will eventually be buried in a grave for unknown souls in the temple’s back garden.

“They are humans just like us,” said Mr. Kojima, who said the temple usually took in two or three sets of anonymous remains of North Korean fishermen a year. “But they have no one to look after their ashes.”

“Since they were born into this world,” he said, “they must have parents and families. I feel so sorry for them.”

Source: NYT > World

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